Growing up, I hustled a fair amount.
I’ve washed dishes in a bar, delivered food on an e-scooter — even sold fruits at a hawker centre when I was a kid.
However, being a referee was by far the most thankless job I’ve done.
Let me give you a little context.
From the age of 17–20, competing in martial arts was my life. That was the reason for all those odd jobs. I didn’t work because I was hurting for money, I hustled because the flexible timings allowed me to train and compete to my heart’s desire.
Imagine my joy when a local tournament set up shop in Singapore — and invited me to be part of the team.
I helped keep score, checked to ensure the athletes were on weight and cleaned the mats.
Menial labour for the most part, but I was happy to be part of the growth of Singapore martial arts. I enjoyed being behind-the-scenes on competition day, breathing in the vibe, tasting the electric atmosphere from the other side of the mats for a change. It was my scene and I loved it.
So naturally, when they asked for volunteer referees (and there was a good reason why there was a lack of referees — we’ll get to that soon), I signed myself up.
Fast forward to today, I’ve probably refereed hundreds of Jiu-Jitsu matches — I even founded Singapore BJJ Open, Singapore’s premier grappling tournament.
Having had the unique experience of being first a competitor, then a referee and now an organizer, I can attest that referees are tremendously unappreciated.
In fact, I would be willing to bet that referees are the most underappreciated staff in all of sports.
Here are 3 reasons why.
#1: It’s Always The Referees Fault (Even When It Isn’t)
Sports officials might be the most highly scrutinised decision-makers in the world. Split-second calls are videotaped in high-definition and slow-motion from three different angles, then pored over by fans and critics for days or weeks.
— Keith Lyons, The Conversation
It's no secret that in a match, tensions run sky-high.
When they hit a boiling point, tempers start flaring and abuse start flying. Yelling at the opponent is out of the question, that would be very disrespectful. And you can’t chew out your teammate — not in public, at least, so the temper missiles often land on the nearest available scapegoat.
The third person in the arena.
Hey referee, 2 points!
Referee, that was a takedown!
Where’s my advantage, ref?
If I had a dollar every time I heard those phrases, I wouldn’t have to write articles for a living.
I get it. I’ve been guilty of this in the past. Whenever a teammate of mine was competing I would say anything that was legally allowed to help him gain an edge.
It’s called playing the game — everyone does it.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting the best for your team. Nothing sucks more than spending weeks training hard for a tournament, only to have officiating errors screw you out of a win.
The problem is, most of the time, officials are hired for a reason. They are professional, qualified, and thus mistakes are the exception to the rule, not the norm.
Think back on the last tournament you’ve watched, or the last fight you saw on TV. Chances are the match went smoothly. The referee did their job, nobody got hurt, and everybody won or lost exactly as they deserved.
Did the referee get commended for a job well done? Does anybody give them a friendly pat on the back and say:
“Solid refereeing there mate, you were great. You play an important role in keeping the participants safe and the matches fair. Let me buy you a pint of Guinness as a way of thanks, eh?”
Never — it never happens. It’s laughable and more than a little sad.
However, when there is a screw-up — a human error in every 50 to 100 matches, many are quick to point fingers.
#2 Split-Second Decision Making
There are two types of decision-making processes.
The Rational Decision Making Process and the Split Second Decision Process. As a referee, most of your decision-making consists of the latter.
Was that a sweep or a reversal?
Is that guy asleep or actively defending the choke?
Is the fighter still actively defending himself, or should I call the fight and protect him from unnecessary damage?
Those thoughts flash through your mind in a matter of seconds. The pressure is on, the action is happening, and there’s no time to think. At the end of the match, the players shake hands and move on — but you stay. And you repeat the process. Again and again.
It exhausts you quickly, and the more tired you are, the more you are apt to be swayed by the crowd.
…there is interesting evidence that sheer noise may be having an impact. Muay Thai judges who were given noise-cancelling headphones judged competitors more evenly than the judges who could hear the crowd. In the end, the difference amounted to a statistically significant half-point per bout.
Another football study suggests the noise of the crowd makes officials anxious and more likely to make a popular decision. It’s not surprising that referees have said the most important quality to have is “mental toughness”.
And what happens when you are exhausted, drop the ball and make 1 bad call after making a hundred good ones?
Refer to point #1: It’s always the referee's fault.
Queue the boos.
#3 You Get Blamed (By The Very People You’re Trying To Help)
“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”
— Albert King
I’ll let you in on a secret.
Referees are not well-paid.
Unless you’re a top tier referee for the UFC (and even at that level, all of them have other full-time jobs), the compensation is little more than pocket money.
When I first began referring, my pay was $50 for a full day of work. That was pretty shit money, even for a broke 19-year-old.
I remember I would go home, exhausted. I would receive no thanks, and more often than not I would’ve received an earful from just about everybody. From disgruntled competitors to angry teammates and coaches — I’ve even received complaints and snide remarks online.
It was awful.
But the next time I got called for the job, I did it again.
There were others like me, referees who got paid the same chump change but who kept stepping up on the mats to offer their services.
We did it because it was the only way for the scene to grow.
Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. Similarly, everybody wants to have the cool bits, the glory of competing and the perks of being part of a bustling community — but few want to step up to the plate and actually make it happen.
Me, and the rest of the other $50 a pop referees — were the ones who bit the bullet hard and got the job done.
Now, this is the part that breaks my heart the most. I’ve seen well-meaning, earnest referees crumble after criticism. Sometimes, it gets so bad that they refuse to ref ever again.
It sucks. It really does.
Nothing takes the wind out of your sails and the shine out of your eyes like being critiqued by the very people you were trying to help. It’s one of the few things I genuinely dislike about running tournaments.
In Summary: Referees Are Humans Too
Look, I get it.
I’ve been a competitor and a teammate. I’ve yelled at referees, and have been yelled at in turn.
If there’s anything I would like you to take away from this article, it’s that referees are doing a hard and crucial job — one that, because of the low pay and high responsibilities, virtually nobody wants to do.
Maybe next time before thinking the referee is biased, think that maybe he has reffed 30 matches before yours and the mistake may be due to fatigue.
Maybe next time after your referee made a good call — tell him that.
Maybe — if you’re feeling particularly chummy, you can clap him on the back.
Tell him he did a great job, and that he is appreciated.
Acts of kindness and appreciation add up. It’s the small things that help to make the Jiu-Jitsu community a vibrant and positive one.
You may think that nobody notices, but I promise you, they do.
Besides, a simple “thank you” can be sweet music to the ears after endless hours of hearing “Referee, where're my two points?!”
Thank you for reading :)